An RCMP cross-Canada review of missing and murdered aboriginal women has hiked the known number of cases to 1,186 — a dramatic jump from previous estimates, including the 824 cases unearthed by a University of Ottawa researcher, released earlier this year. The new estimates underscore the necessity of attending to the vulnerability of aboriginal women, who are disproportionately the victims of crime in Canada.
The RCMP’s numbers, reflecting cases dating back 30 years, gleaned from 300 police detachments, are being cited as proof the country needs a national inquiry into the problem. The United Nations rapporteur on indigenous issues, James Anaya, on Monday leant his voice to the rising demand, highlighting the cause in a report that slammed Canada for its lack of effort to alleviate the appalling social, educational and economic conditions plaguing First Nations people.
It is unclear, however, precisely what would be the focus of such an inquiry. Inquiries are long and increasingly expensive but justified by the insight or answers they can reveal in the event of egregious miscarriage or systemic abuse involving public office.
Canada knows all too well why aboriginal women are disproportionately vulnerable — aboriginal women made up 16 per cent of all murdered females (between 1980-2012) and 12 per cent of all missing females on record, while comprising only four per cent of the female population, according to the RCMP. Endemic poverty, low rates of high school graduation and high unemployment create conditions in First Nations communities that fuel high levels of crime, domestic violence and addictions. This puts aboriginal women at risk. (Contrary to common belief, U of O graduate student Maryanne Pearce found that 80 per cent of the 824 victims she found were not engaged in the sex trade).
The harder point to the demands for an inquiry, however, focuses on the actions or inactions of police. Critics and advocates insist police are part of the problem, that when a call for help comes from families and friends, police are dismissive, discriminatory and uninterested. Amnesty International a year ago produced a report that documented numerous allegations of abusive treatment of women by RCMP in northern British Columbia communities. An appropriate response would have seen the Harper government appointing an independent investigator to verify the reports.
RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson, in releasing the results of the cross-Canada file review earlier this month, shut down all talk of police misdeeds or inattentiveness, insisting there is no support for the accusation. The full report from the RCMP-led fact-finding mission will fill in the details, but Mr. Paulson has said the homicide solve rate of the aboriginal women's cases was 88 per cent, compared with the 89 per cent for non-aboriginal cases.
That does not precisely answer the accusation, however, that police drag their feet when a call for help comes. A Commons committee report found compelling the repeated testimonies that police reflexively dismissed the concerns of families when a loved one went missing, even after the disappearance was shown to be entirely out of character. This goes to the nub of the concern, the brewing suspicion police are not as vigorous in investigating cases as they would be were the victims not aboriginal women.
The RCMP review must respond to this long, lingering complaint head-on. That could include an audit of cases that compares the quality of response to aboriginal cases with that for non-aboriginal cases. This, in addition to detail on common traits or characteristics that victims shared — aboriginal and non-aboriginal — would give a fuller picture on what and why the women fell into harm. That detail is central to solutions. Mr. Paulson should ensure that behind the numbers, his report addresses these issues.
» This editorial was previously published in the Winnipeg Free Press